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Riding With Chuck At home in St. Louis with the 75-year-old legend, who was still getting harassed by the cops BY MARK JACOBSON ixteen years ago, roughly on the occasion of That was another thing Chuck gave me, the horse’s-mouth his 75th birthday, I flew to St. Louis to talk to Chuck testimony that even when you’re the Father of Rock & Roll, the Berry. This was per our arrangement. Chuck said there cops will still stop you for being, as Chuck said, “a color other would be none of those long confessional conversations than white.” Asked if he had ever gotten over the way so many where “the writer moves into my house and watches me white groups, the Beach Boys and Beatles included, made forbrush my teeth in my pajamas.” Instead, I was to travel to Old St. tunes out of his music, or the fact that, like Muhammad Ali, Loo at one-month intervals, chat for a couple of hours at the Blueyears were taken from the prime of his career after he was bustberry Hill club and then go home. This worked well, for a while, ed on the rarely invoked Mann Act (a law prohibiting the transChuck always appearing at the appointed place and time. Chuck port of a woman across a state line for an “immoral purpose”; might have developed a reputation Charlie Chaplin, pegged as a comover his matchless career for some munist, and the brash black boxer nasty habits, but lack of punctuality Jack Johnson were similarly acwas not one of them. Through thoucused), Chuck said, “Get over it? sands of gigs, no matter how remote Not really.” the venue, Chuck was always there, Chuck told me that, outside of his on the dot, as long as the money was family, the last thing he ever wanted up and his three standard contract to see on this Earth was the number demands were fulfilled: a Lincoln “1 million” inscribed in his banktown car at the airport, a Fender book. No doubt he achieved that, Bassman amp and an “able” pickwhich maybe squared things up, to up band, as in, a band “able to play a degree. It is also sweet to hear that Chuck Berry songs,” which should go the record he’d been working on for without saying, because how could the past couple of decades will come any band be a band if it couldn’t play out in June. The song list contains a Chuck Berry songs? tune called “Jamaica Moon,” which So it was a surprise when Chuck brought a smile to my face, owing did not show up to our last meeting. to an incident that occurred during BON VOYAGE Berry in 2008, Reaching him at his home at Berry our visits. At the time, Chuck had captain’s hat Park outside Wentzville, Missouri, not been in a commercial recordupon his head Chuck was cheerfully unapologetic. ing studio for 17 years. He’d been He said he hadn’t forgotten our date fooling around at home, but now he because “I never forget anything.” wanted to make “a real record.” AdHe simply decided he had other, mitting to some nervousness, Chuck It was a good song, Chuck said, more important things to do. At the entered the studio with boxes full but he’d grown to hate it: moment, he was just finishing trowof old sheet music and reel-to-reel eling a little cement on his front tapes. One page flew out and flut“It never made a dime.” doorstep. After that, he planned to tered to rest at my feet. pull up a chair on the lawn to “watch It was the original sheet music, it set.” “Call me capricious,” said the with Chuck’s penciled notations, for man who once allegedly flicked the “Havana Moon,” one of my all-time ash of his cigarette down Keith Richards’ shirt, adding that we favorites. Not at all like the more familiar “Chuck Berry songs,” both knew he’d already given me “plenty.” “Havana Moon” tells a vernacular story of a local who falls in This was, of course, accurate. Over lunches of chicken wings love with a beautiful tourist on a tropical island. The local spends and coleslaw, Chuck, captain’s hat upon his head, had reprised most of the tune waiting for his love to return, only to have dozed his singular American journey. He had even let me drive his off when she actually arrives, not waking up until he sees her Toyota Avalon, albeit briefly. The Avalon was a serious letdown boat head “for horizon.” It always gets me, that one, but before I after all that detail-rich automotive phantasmagoria described could pick the sheet music from the floor, Chuck snagged it and in tunes like “No Money Down” and “You Can’t Catch Me.” But jammed it back into its box. It was a good song, Chuck said, but there was a purpose to it, Chuck said: “In a Toyota, the cops don’t he’d grown to hate it. “It never made a dime,” he said, attributstop you as much.” ing the lack of sales to “Fidel Castro, the whole communist-Cuba Did the cops actually stop him, even now? I asked. thing down there.” He said that one day, if he got around to it, “Shit, yeah,” Chuck replied, with a flash of sternness. “They he would rewrite the song as the less-controversial “Jamaica stop me. They’ll let me go after they see it’s me, but they stop me. Moon,” and put it out on a new record. It was nice to see he found Always have, always will.” the time.

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